The cultural phenomenon known as “Linsanity” swept the globe just over 18 months ago. But for a handful of Asian-Americans—in particular, a contingent of Bay Area–bred basketball junkies—the New York Knick benchwarmer-turned-overnight-sensation Jeremy Lin had been a cult figure since his days in the Ivy League, where he’d landed after getting ignored by major college basketball programs despite a decorated high school career in Palo Alto, Calif.
It was during Lin’s senior year at Harvard that the director Evan Leong approached him with the idea of producing short YouTube webisodes about his life, an idea Lin initially resisted. But Leong, once a high school classmate of mine in San Francisco, was persistent, seeing the appeal of Lin’s story early on. “He did a lot of things we had never seen somebody do in college, someone of Asian-American heritage, from where we’re from,” Leong told me. “He made you think someone you knew could have gone down that road. But then you realize he had something real special that no one else had.”
Leong’s patience paid off. Some three years and a statistically unprecedented two-week run of games later, the project has turned into a feature-length documentary, Linsanity, which opens this Friday in select theaters across the country.
I spoke with Lin—now in his second year with the Houston Rockets—over the phone recently about the new movie and his recollections of that brief, magical moment in sports history.
Slate: What did you think of the project when Evan first approached you?
Jeremy Lin: I wasn’t really that warm to the idea. I wasn’t that comfortable with the camera. But after three years, I decided it was a good opportunity. And I was more used to the cameras being around.
Slate: Through all the ups and downs you experienced early on in your career, can you remember a time when you felt like asking them to shut it down, that it was enough?
Lin: They wanted to shoot every time I got cut. They’re like, “Tell me how you feel.” It’s like, “Uh … not that great.” But they forced me to do it, and I’m glad I did because, in my opinion, that’s probably the best footage. It’s having those moments, when I’m walking into the airport, getting cut, stuff like that.
Slate: Those are some of the most interesting moments for me too. Before Linsanity, how much did you believe you really belonged and could have success in the NBA?
Lin: I knew I could play in the league. I thought it was going to be as a backup or whatever. I was like, “You know what? These other point guards, I can hang with them.” I didn’t know I was going to be a starter that fast. I didn’t know I was going to have that much success that fast. Not even close. But I’m thankful that it happened the way it did.
Slate: There’s a scene in the movie, just before the Nets game that kicked off Linsanity where you describe a sort of Zen calm you feel prior to tipoff. How did that calm come about, considering where you were in your career: on the verge of being cut from your third team, this maybe being your last chance?
Lin: The thing for me, I was thinking, “If this is my last game, I want to make sure I go out the way I want to go out, which is playing my brand of basketball.” I think God gave me tremendous peace, and he really empowered me because I was really stressed; I was nervous. But He really allowed me to overcome that and to get comfortable on the court, and in the zone. And once you kind of get in that zone, there’s nothing really that you feel like can stop you.
Slate: Do you ever think about where your career would be if you hadn’t played the way you did in that game?
Lin: Sure, it might be over. [Laughs.]
Slate: Had you thought about playing in Europe or Asia? Did you actually have to consider those options?
Lin: Yeah, they briefly ran through my head. But I didn’t really want to believe it, or think about it. I was probably going to try here or there, but I didn’t know how long or how viable, especially long-term, it would be.
Slate: Evan said he thought you were able to keep your composure through all of that craziness during Linsanity because of your genuine humility, never letting things get to your head. How do you reconcile that humility with the need to be totally confident when you step out on the floor? Are those things incompatible?
Lin: I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. You can be humble in the sense that you treat everybody with respect, you care genuinely about your teammates, you care genuinely about team success. But at the same time, you can also be realistic and say, “This is what I’m really good at, this is what I’m not really good at, this is my strength, this is what I’m capable of, and when I get out on the court, I’m going to do what I’m best at.”
As long as you keep that in check, I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. There are definitely guys who play with a humble demeanor, a team-first demeanor, guys like Steve Nash, who elevate the game of their teammates. But it’s not like Steve Nash is out there wondering, “Well, can I play with these guys?” or, “I wonder if I’m good enough.” No, he knows how good he is, and he does exactly what he’s supposed to do. But he does it in a way that is very accommodating to his team, and he takes his ego out of it.
Slate: I guess I’m thinking of some of the guys at the highest levels of the sport. When you talk about Jordan and Kobe, there’s that killer mentality. And there is a sense of ego, it seems, when you see those guys play.
Lin: At the end of the day, you can be extremely competitive, and that still doesn’t clash. The game could be on the line, and you can be like, “I’m going to hit the game-winner. I’m going to take this shot, and I’m going to make sure that we win.” I think having that ability and having that confidence is good.
There’s a difference between that, and saying, “I knew it was going in,” or making fun of other people. You hear that all the time. You hear guys inflating themselves. I think that’s just a part of the game that … It’s fine, it’s OK, but it’s not everyone’s style.
Slate: Entering the league as a rookie, you’re a little bit skinny, but over time, we see you bulk up and get stronger. In my childhood, Bruce Lee was maybe the only prominent example of a strong Asian male who one regularly saw in popular media. Do you ever think about how you look to Asian kids, even on a physical level, and how you might be changing certain stereotypes about Asian men?
Lin: I don’t necessarily think about that question all that often. I try to focus on what I’m supposed to do, and to do my job the best I can. I kind of let everything happen the way it’s supposed to happen, let everything fall into place the way it should. Right now, hopefully in one small way, I’m able to challenge everyone’s notions of Asian-Americans, or Asian-American masculinity, or Asian-American basketball players. But at the end of the day, I’m not like, “I hope that people will think this or think that.” I’m just trying to be myself, and through this story, hopefully people can draw certain things or challenge the way they think.
Slate: In the movie, before Linsanity happens, we see how much work you put in during the offseason to improve yourself as a player, even when you weren’t really playing in games. But you also mention how there were so many things beyond your control that helped bring Linsanity about. How much of it do you attribute to your own ability and preparation and how much was truly inexplicable?
Lin: The way I see it is, sure, I have to develop my talent, I have to work hard. But where does my talent come from? Where does my work ethic come from? On top of that, you can have all those things, and you can not have the right opportunities, or the right situation, and it’s all negated.
In many ways, the longer I live, I understand that there are so many things outside my control. That’s why I believe faith is such a big part of the story. There are so many things that were orchestrated by God, that were put into place to make this perfect storm, that created Linsanity.
Slate: I actually got goosebumps watching some of those highlights again, just from the memories of being in New York at the time and being able to experience that. When you’re having a bad day on the court, do you ever just pop in those highlights, sit back, and remind yourself, “Yeah, I did that. That happened.”
Lin: I watch the documentary when things aren’t going well, and I’m frustrated, and I’m asking questions, and I’m wondering, “Why is it happening this way? Why am I in this situation?” And I watch it to remind myself God has been faithful to me over and over and over, again and again and again. Sometimes that’s just the dose of reality, the refreshment or encouragement that I need, to be able to get back on track.
Slate: Your Houston Rockets are bringing Dwight Howard on board this year. From your experience coming over to a new team in the offseason with high expectations, how do you think the transition will go? Do you expect to see growing pains early on?
Lin: There will definitely be growing pains. I can’t remember the last time one team didn’t have growing pains adding a huge piece like Dwight. But at the end of the day, if we’re all committed, and we all buy in, those growing pains will just be an afterthought compared to hopefully what we can accomplish together.